Why historical Jesus research is not a waste of time

Derek Flood, whose article on penal substitution in the early Church Fathers I recently summarized, just posted on why he thinks the historical study of Jesus is a waste of time. In this post I will argue, on the contrary, that Flood's criticisms are misplaced and that historical research is a valuable undertaking for the committed Christian.

Flood begins by affirming the value of researching the historical context of the New Testament (which might be summarized as 'background research'): "We want to understand the context of the writers of the NT so that we do not simply impose our doctrinal and cultural biases onto the text but actually hear what the NT authors are telling us." Presumably this includes the study of the original languages, ancient literary genres and techniques, Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, etc. Anything that goes into retrieving the original meaning of the NT texts.

But Flood has a problem with historical research which, "rooted in the assumptions of the historical-critical method, presents a view of Jesus that is deliberately opposed to the message of the New Testament." He cites as an example the attempt to separate authentic from inauthentic words of Jesus in the Gospels, which often involves a distinction between words that presuppose the occurrence of the resurrection (rejected as inauthentic), and words that plausibly originated in a pre-resurrection understanding of Jesus (or rather, an understanding of Jesus which did not yet affirm his resurrection, the assumption being that such an understanding is more likely to be accurate). To Flood this does not make sense because the resurrection was the key that allowed the early Christians to unpack Jesus' true significance: "All the stuff that Jesus said and did leads up the cross and the resurrection. It gives us the context for understanding the cross and what it means, and at the same time it was only afterJesus rose that they could look back and say, 'Ooooh, now I get it!'"

This leads to his culminating indictment against historical Jesus research:

Now the historical search instead ignores the resurrection and wants to reconstruct a hypothetical version of Jesus as if there was no resurrection. In doing this they need to reject the entire point of the Gospel writers and toss out their message, calling it 'inauthentic'. Thus they present a version of Jesus that Peter, Paul and John never believed in. Indeed most of the time in their so-called historical reconstruction Jesus either ends up coincidentally look[ing] like a reflection of these scholars, or a version of Jesus emerges that these scholars themselves can't do anything with and themselves reject as 'not compatible with the modern worldview.' As a result this 'historical' study does not help us understand the NT better, [because] it begins by rejecting the [most basic] assumption of the NT: the resurrection.

(Note: at certain points I have modified Flood's wording to better convey what I think his meaning was, because in the post as it stands it was a little confusing to me)

Now there are two basic criticisms here, and we need to keep them separate: one is that historical research inhibits our understanding of the NT by rejecting its fundamental presuppositions, and for the same reason it results in a portrait of Jesus which is opposed to that of the NT.

I think the first criticism is plainly mistaken, because determining the meaning or message of a text is a separate task from judging its truth or falsity. It may be that not sharing someone's beliefs or finding them strange or abhorrent makes one prone to misunderstanding or caricature, but there is no obstacle in principle to coming to an accurate understanding of a message one does not believe in. Classical scholars can arrive at a nuanced and accurate view of Homer's theology without themselves accepting it. But there is a vagueness in Flood's objection here because he is not opposed to background research, in fact he thinks it is essential to avoid anachronistic readings. The real objection seems to be that any historical reconstruction which deviates from the story told by the NT misunderstands it because that story is the correct understanding. But at this point in the argument that is simply question-begging: it could very well be that the NT's own understanding of the significance of Jesus is a misunderstanding and needs to be corrected, which leads to the second criticism.

Before I go on, however, a brief overview of the historical-critical method is apropos. In essence, historical criticism is a sub-species of literary criticism, which focuses specifically on texts that purport to be historical. Literary criticism begins by asking some basic, common-sensical questions of a text: what is its provenance (who wrote it, where and when) and what is its genre (what kind of information does the text provide, and what is its purpose). Historical texts are those which claim to provide accurate information about events which unfolded in the past (in the ancient world this does not necessarily mean that the events recounted took place exactly as described: for example, a historical biography could include the recounting of an action or speech by the subject which did not take place in exactly that way, but was nevertheless characteristic of that person, thus providing accurate information about that person's character and abilities).

Historical criticism involves judging whether the text's claim to accuracy is justified, whether we should trust the account in its portrayal of certain events. Here information on provenance is crucial (which allows us to determine whether the author was in a position to know about the events recounted), as is the ability to compare the account with other accounts of the same events and with material (epigraphical, archeological) evidence from the relevant period. Internal considerations are also important: is the account internally consistent, or do we suspect that it is a composite document forged from partially or wholly divergent sources?

It should be obvious that this task is essential if we are to arrive at a true and accurate understanding of the past. When Josephus gives us information about the Jewish War, we want to know whether we can trust it, and we read Josephus looking for information that will allow us to make that judgment. The same goes for Tacitus, Pliny the Elder and any other authors who claim to give us historical information. Accordingly, since the Gospels also claim to be giving us true information (about Jesus and his significance), we should read them through the lens of historical criticism with an eye to being able to make the same judgment. It is an obvious and completely sensible question to ask: do the Gospels give us an accurate portrait of Jesus?

Historical research becomes controversial, of course, when we try to elucidate the grounds for suspecting or concluding that a historical text is inaccurate. These generally fall into two categories: external and internal. External grounds would include presuppositions about the plausibility of certain events, information from other accounts of the same events (or even the absence of other accounts) and lacking or contradictory information concerning the text's provenance. Internal grounds would include questions of consistency and style: does the author claim to be providing accurate information while writing in a style more reminiscent of satire or mythology?

Flood's allusion to the 'assumptions' of the historical-critical method, together with his specific reference to the rejection of the resurrection, suggests that he shares the suspicion many Christians have of the historical-critical method: that it rules out a priori the accuracy of any account describing a miraculous, divine intervention. I would certainly agree with him that a priori judgments are unacceptable, but there are other grounds for doubting the accuracy of a historical text that must be taken seriously. Christians certainly do not doubt the Book of Mormon, for example, just because it recounts supernatural events or because it was handed down supernaturally, things which they affirm of the Bible! Questions are also raised about the lack of archeological confirmation, discrepancies in its depiction of pre-Columbine American culture, etc.

I suspect that the real question Flood is asking is whether it could ever be legitimate to 'go behind' the New Testament and try to arrive at a portrait of Jesus which diverges from the evangelists' understanding. I would say the answer is clearly yes. It is entirely possible, as I said before, that the NT understanding of Jesus is a misunderstanding, and the information they give us about him inaccurate. That this would be unpalatable to those who share that understanding has no bearing on its truth, any more than Mormons' discomfort with historians' doubts about the Book of Mormon is a reason to discount those doubts.

When a historian judges a historical text inaccurate, it is often possible to construct an alternative account of the events it describes, together with an explanation for how testimony to those events became distorted. That this account diverges from that of the text itself does not make the enterprise incoherent. Even if the canonical Gospels are our best sources for the historical Jesus that does not mean we are bound to accept their portrait of Jesus in our historical reconstructions (sometimes even the best is not good enough!). It is often possible to read between the lines of a suspicious text for evidence of ideological tampering, etc. Of course people can become suspicious of a text too easily or for the wrong reasons (for example, an a priori rejection of the possibility of the miraculous), but sometimes suspicion is justified, and the responsible historian will try to discover the truth behind tendentious or misleading accounts.

Some people (and I imagine Flood would be among them) object to the term 'historical Jesus' and the search for him because it seems to presuppose a disjunction between that figure and the 'Christ of faith' that the creeds proclaim. But this objection again is misplaced. Perhaps in many cases historical Jesus scholars have assumed this divergence from the outset, but of itself the historical-critical method does not require or even suggest this. Actually there are two opposite errors in the historical study of Jesus: one is to assume at the outset that historical research will uncover a portrait of Jesus radically different from the orthodox one, the other is to assume that historical research will confirm the identity of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. The key here is to realize that the orthodox or NT portrait of Jesus is only one of many portraits of Jesus that are possibly true. The responsible historian should not assume in advance that any of them will turn out to be true, in advance of examining the actual evidence using the historical-critical method.

Now I happen to think that historical research does confirm the orthodox portrait of Jesus, and that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the rise of Christianity. But nothing about the historical method itself would cause me to assume that in advance of scholarly investigation.

It seems to me that Flood's objections only have purchase if one already knows that the NT understanding of Jesus is the correct one, so any reconstruction which diverges from it is by definition incorrect. Significantly, the grounds on which Flood accepts the accuracy of the NT portrait of Jesus are experiential rather than historical: "I find life when I read the gospels and the NT because it brings me into the same encounter of God in Christ that the New Testament authors had...The message of the gospel brings life. In contrast to this the message of these historians brings doubt, cynicism and darkness." This might be a legitimate way to the truth of the Gospels (NT Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, for one, endorses it or something very similar), but if doubts are raised on historical grounds about the accuracy of the Gospels, Christians should examine these potential defeaters on historical or philosophical grounds, not dismiss them because they challenge faith.

This brings us to the reason why historical research is not a waste of time for Christians: as I said previously, the orthodox understanding of Jesus is only one of many possible understandings. It is incumbent upon Christians to show that their understanding is the most plausible, whether on historical or philosophical grounds (or both), or at the very least show that it is a legitimate option in the marketplace of ideas. Even if many people come to faith via a non-evidential route (for example, they receive some immediate impression of God's reality and forgiveness), if there are evidential defeaters for the faith they must be dealt with, otherwise one's faith will be schizophrenic: in the Christian's heart she may 'know that my Redeemer lives', but her head might be screaming objections.

When it comes down to it, any decision for or against the Christian faith must include answering the question of whether or not the Gospel portraits of Jesus can be trusted. There could be multiple grounds for confidence or suspicion, among which are specifically historical grounds, having to do with the evidence that we have for Gospel authorship, dating, provenance, genre, corroborating accounts, etc. It is a valuable enterprise for Christians to look for and present the historical evidence for the Christian faith. Nothing about the historical-critical method demands that it arrive at a reconstruction which diverges from the NT understanding. At the same time, one can come to an accurate understanding of the NT without accepting its fundamental presuppositions.


Jason Pratt said…
A fine article JD!

steve said…
Thanks, JD.
webulite.com said…
Christian supernaturalists I believe have a built in problem examining issues of the historical jesus. I have outlined my reasons for this here; http://bit.ly/cH7300

Cheers! webulite@gmail.com
Derek said…
Hey John, Nice to see your write-up on my blog post. I noticed that you were quoting an earlier version of the post (before I fixed some typos), and so I wanted to point out in case you had not seen it yet that I also added a new section to the post where I qualified my position a bit and added some further thoughts.

Reading your article it seems your main point is that you believe we should fearlessly pursue historical truth wherever it leads, even if this means going contra to the message and intent of the NT. On the outset this seems like a reasonable claim: we should pursue objective truth. The difficulty is that there is not one single “historical view” that we can set side by side with the NT. There are practically as many historical interpretations as there are scholars. So which “historical” view do we choose? Do we pick the historical portrait of Albert Schweizer, or John Dominic Crossan, or NT Wright, or John Meier, or Marcus Borg? Each give us very different “historical” portraits of Jesus. Which one is right?

Now you describe historical criticism in terms of whether it accurately describes historical events. This confused me a bit because the historical study of Jesus primarily focused on determining what Jesus said and didn't say, rather than on what historical events took place. The difficulty in doing this is that the only record we have of what Jesus said are the four gospels (some would add Thomas). So there is not any way to reliably verify this. The best anyone can do is say, based on a comparison to things others have said at the time “I don't think a Jew like Jesus would have said that.” In other words, you can make guesses, but they remain just that: guesses. As soon as one scholar makes a guess about something, there will be another who disagrees. It is not about hard facts, or historical events. Its very hypothetical.

But the main gripe I have is not so much with historical study (which I think is valuable), but with the prescriptive conclusions that many of these historians draw when they declare one phrase “authentic” and another “inauthentic”. The reality is that the NT contains a plurality of perspectives. In some places we can see the influence of Greek thought, in others we see Jewish thought, and so on. I do think it is valuable to be aware of this, and this is something that historical studies can provide. The difficulty comes when these same scholars propose that we need to reduce this plurality into one single “authentic” voice. As if one cultural worldview was the “right” one. This is not something that the NT authors felt the need to do. They include for example four different gospels accounts—four different takes on who Jesus was. There is in this an embrace of cultural diversity. Yet the NT remains at the same time culturally critical, embracing the good in each culture, but also challenging and transforming it. I think that is a much deeper way to engage our world and is preferable to the attempt to reduce it to one “right, good, authentic” worldview.
webulite.com said…
Dear Derek,

So which “historical” view do we choose? Do we pick the historical portrait of Albert Schweizer, or John Dominic Crossan, or NT Wright, or John Meier, or Marcus Borg? Each give us very different “historical” portraits of Jesus. Which one is right?

Only when one demonstrates their view do we choose it. Until then, all the positions are just speculative. At this point we don't know if a Jesus existed, let alone what he may or may not of said. And that where it must remain, until someone can demonstrate their hypothesis is correct.

Cheers! webulite@gmail.com
Metacrock said…
webulite.com said...

Christian supernaturalists I believe have a built in problem examining issues of the historical jesus. I have outlined my reasons for this here; http://bit.ly/cH7300

Cheers! webulite@gmail.com

Your concept of the supernatural is limited to the hijack of the enlightenment. you are dealing with the counterfeit concept to begin with.

You think God is "a being" understandable but uninformed.

Finally, I don't think you understand history or what's being said about it here.
Metacrock said…
At this point we don't know if a Jesus existed, let alone what he may or may not of said. And that where it must remain, until someone can demonstrate their hypothesis is correct.

Science isn't proved to be a resistible source of knowledge either. You seem to have no problem trusting it.

the grounds upon which you trust scinece are really the same grounds upon which history says Jesus existed.

(1) no contraction to it and it seems self consistent.

(2) If a contradiction is found it's ruled ideologically on the grounds that it can't be true because it contradicts the paradigm
Jason Pratt said…

But what if we aren't going to historical Jesus studies looking for one inerrant authority telling us exactly everything about Jesus that must be true? (Something even Roman Catholics don't strictly do?)

What if we go to historical Jesus studies, in their own plurality, with an eye to finding (insofar as possible) a reasonable harmonization built from treatments of the topic?--much as we can go to multiple ancient texts about Jesus, assessing their merits, including the canonical Gospels?

True, different people may arrive at somewhat different understandings of the merits of the case. Maybe this is only because I was raised a Baptist, but so what?--we all have a personal responsibility on that matter, to do the best we can to understand the objective truth of the situation.

And it isn't like there is an absolute plurality of difference in the results, either, with every person (scholar or otherwise) arriving at some totally different result about Jesus. There is much less than an absolute plurality of difference in the information of the canonical Four, too. I find they fit together narratively and thematically well enough, especially once some outside contexts (discoverable from other ancient sources) are factored in.

That kind of stereoscopic unity is just what historians look for in apparently divergent accounts, as weight in favor of a complex underlying core narrative--which in turn weighs at least somewhat in favor of historicity (since history is also a complex unified core narrative, even if only God could know the whole fullness of that narrative. True, it might also point back to, say, a much larger fictional novel, whether written or oral, of which we only now see parts in the Gospels. But that's why historians don't rely on harmonization alone to gauge such things.)

JD Walters said…
Hi Derek,

Thanks for your comment. I'm not too impressed with the mere existence of many alternative views. Most of these (Jesus was a shaman who learned magic in Egypt, etc.) will be highly speculative and poorly supported by the evidence, while those done by responsible scholars will tend to overlap significantly (I've commented on this previously here).

But even if there was no way to distinguish between these alternative views on historical grounds, that would not make the NT account winner by default. It is not a good reason to choose the NT account just because there are so many others which we can't decide between. It might be that we really don't know much at all about Jesus, and that all the reconstructions (including the ones that basically coincide with the orthodox view) are severely inadequate. That would be a sad state of affairs for believers, but would not change the truth.

As for the aim of the historical method, it is artificial to distinguish judgments about whether a historical event happened or not with judgments about whether Jesus (or another famous person) said something or not. Both involve the question of accuracy: Did Jesus actually do the things the Gospels say he did, and did he say the things the Gospels say he did?

I granted in my post that historical grounds for skepticism can become controversial. That was why the criterion of dissimilarity you refer to was abandoned: scholars realized that it was far too subjective and arbitrary to try to delineate exactly what a 1st Century Jew would or would not say or believe. And you're probably right that it is impossible in practice to isolate authentic from inauthentic discrete sayings. What we can do is construct a comprehensive portrait of the historical Jesus that can be compared to other comprehensive portraits on the basis of how well they comport with the totality of evidence we have about Gospel authorship, the early rise of Christianity, etc.

I think evangelicals tend to make a virtue out of the complexities of historical Jesus research because it seems to open up some epistemic space: if it is so hard to decide between competing historical portraits, we might as well stick with the NT, right? The problem is that the ambiguities of historical research may not give us good enough reasons to reject the orthodox portrait, but neither do they give us good reasons to accept it. Again, what if the real Jesus was in fact lost to the depths of time, and all we have access to are late, tendentious accounts none of which preserve much information about Jesus? I don't think that's the case, but it is a possibility.

The bottom line is that evangelicals must do good historical work if Christianity is to have a proper historical foundation.
Metacrock said…
What's the point of discussing historical method with people who don't believe in or accept the concept of presumption and are not wiling to accept the verdict of hsitory and have demonstrated that they are anti-academic? I refer to the Jesus mythers of course.
webulite.com said…
Dear Metacrock,

Thanks for the post. I noticed that I am unable to contact you via the link this comment thread lists. See http://webulite.webhop.org/nicetomeetyou if you want to talk further, or get a response.

Cheers! webulite@gmail.com
Derek said…

“What if we go to historical Jesus studies, in their own plurality, with an eye to finding (insofar as possible) a reasonable harmonization built from treatments of the topic?”

Yes that would be good. What I am opposed to is the so-called “authentic” sayings of Jesus reducing a very radical and multifaceted picture of of Jesus found in the four gospels and whittling it down into a single monotone voice. Plurality and complexity are good.
Derek said…

“you're probably right that it is impossible in practice to isolate authentic from inauthentic discrete sayings.”

This is still done quite frequently, and is what I am specifically objecting to. So I guess we agree on that. It seems to me that historical Jesus studies either falls into
(a) dividing sayings of Jesus up into “authentic” and “inauthentic” (which is not only done by the Jesus Seminar, but by 3rd quest folks like John Meiers as well), and
(b) attempts to locate the message of Jesus within a particular worldview and thus to understand it differently in these thought-categories than we had when viewing the same information within our more familiar thought-framework. This is what I see for example NT Wright doing.

I have no problem with B, and find it can be quite useful. I'd say however that pitting such “historical portraits” against the NT is a false dilemma since what in fact happens is we come to a better understanding of the NT. As you say in your other post, “the best scholarly portraits of Jesus won't look a whole lot different from that of the canonical Gospels, simply because they are our earliest and best sources.”
Metacrock said…
webulite.com said...

Dear Metacrock,

Thanks for the post. I noticed that I am unable to contact you via the link this comment thread lists. See http://webulite.webhop.org/nicetomeetyou if you want to talk further, or get a response.

Cheers! webulite@gmail.com

I tired emailing you but my thing came back. You can email me at Metacrock@aol.com

I am going to do a piece on my comments to you soon on my blog and maybe put it up over here.

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